Five people swept up in massive South Florida nursing-school racket plead guilty to fraud

Five people who collaborated with a Fort Lauderdale nursing school at the center of a diploma-mill racket that sold fake degrees to thousands of students in South Florida, Texas and New York pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in federal court Friday.

The case revolved around Charles Etienne, the former president of Sacred Heart International Institute in Fort Lauderdale, who pleaded guilty in April to collaborating with those five associates and others to sell hundreds of “false and fraudulent diplomas and educational transcripts,” according to federal prosecutors in South Florida.

The five defendants who pleaded Friday in Fort Lauderdale federal court are: Simon and Ana Itaman, who owned and operated Nursing Bridges in Houston; the couple’s former employee, Ludnie Jean; her husband, Serge Jean; and Rhomy Louis, who owned and operated United Hearts Consultants, which was based in Fort Lauderdale and had an affiliate in Queens, New York.

After pleading guilty to a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, they all face up to 20 years in prison at their Nov. 30 sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith.

Nadege Auguste, who operated United Hearts Consultants in Fort Lauderdale, is a sixth defendant and still faces trial.

In January, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami rattled the healthcare industry when they unveiled a batch of criminal cases charging about 25 defendants who had ownership interests in or worked as employees and recruiters for Sacred Heart and two other nursing school programs, Siena College of Health in Lauderhill and Palm Beach School of Nursing in Lake Worth. The crackdown continues and more arrests are expected in connection with the probe, which began with a tip four years ago.

The network of nursing school operators, centered in South Florida, illegally charged each student between $10,000 for a licensed practical nurse degree and $17,000 for a registered nurse diploma — without requiring proper training, according to federal authorities and court records. The fake diplomas also came with phony transcripts to bolster the “fraudulent” nursing students’ records, federal prosecutor Christopher Clark said in court papers.

In doing so, the scofflaw schools provided a shortcut for students to avoid taking a nearly two-year nursing program requiring clinical work, national exams and certification, while instructors coached them on taking the licensing exams to practice nursing in a number of states, Clark noted in several indictments.

Many of the students who purchased degrees were from South Florida’s Haitian-American community, including some with legitimate LPN licenses who wanted to become registered nurses, U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe said at a news conference earlier this year. Other students were recruited from out of state to participate in the fraudulent nursing programs.

An estimated 7,600 students paid a total of $114 million for phony nursing degrees from the South Florida schools and other suspect programs between 2016 and 2021. Of those, one-third, or about 2,400 students, ended up passing their licensing exams, mainly in New York, which imposes no limit on the number of times that students can take the exam. Nurses certified in New York have the ability to practice in other states, including Florida.

Many of the students who passed the nursing exams have lost their certification — though they won’t be criminally charged, according to federal authorities. At the beginning of the year, the FBI said it notified nursing boards in all 50 states of every student who obtained a fake nursing degree and passed the exam.

The Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General in Miami said that, despite obvious public concern, the investigation has found no harm caused by any suspect nurses to patients so far.

The investigation, aptly dubbed Operation Nightingale, began in 2019 with a tip from Maryland that led to an FBI undercover operation that initially targeted two Fort Lauderdale business people, Geralda Adrien and Woosvelt Predestin, who both pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. They cooperated with authorities and were sentenced to more than two years and three months in prison in 2022.

Adrien owned two private education companies, Docu-Flex & More and PowerfulU Health Care Services, where Predestin was an employee. Together they schemed with Siena College of Health in Lauderhill, Sacred Heart International Institute in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach School of Nursing in Lake Worth “to sell fraudulent diplomas and college transcripts,” according to court records.

Also initially targeted: The Palm Beach School of Nursing’s president, Johanah Napoleon of West Palm Beach, who pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge, cooperated with authorities and was sentenced to one year and nine months in prison.

Other significant convictions include Eunide Sanon, owner of Siena College of Health in Lauderhill, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and was sentenced to two years and three months.

Also that month, five employees who worked for the Palm Beach School of Nursing and other businesses pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to commit wire fraud.